Is God’s Own Country Drowning?

by July 29, 2018 0 comments

Is God’s Own Country DrowningFrequent and persistent droughts, floods, and earthquakes are a sign of our impending doom, unless we mend our way when it comes to abuse of natural wealth. A major example is the wrath of rains in Kerala, and the destruction that followed is alarming. The time is to implement some corrective actions.

When it strikes, Nature does not differentiate between the rich and the poor. That is what Keralites, especially people in Kottayam, Idukki, Ernakulam, Alappuzha and Thrissur, have gone through in the past fortnight. The southwestern monsoon has unleashed its fury over the State that is caught in a wonderful geographical trap — with towering mountains in the East and roaring sea in the West.

The monsoon, which touched Kerala early this year, started its rein of destruction by triggering landslides and mudslides in Idukki, Kozhikode and Kottayam district by mid-June, killing  dozens. But it assumed catastrophic proportions in its second spell that began around July 9. The result? Nearly 125 have died, over 300 houses totally destroyed, more than 4,000 damaged, crops in nearly 12,000 hectares washed away, hundreds of kilometres of road becoming totally or partially useless. All this leading to losses that has run into several hundred crores.

“There was nowhere to run. There was water everywhere — the level rose rapidly till the entire region was submerged,” Ramakrishna Pillai, a small-holder farmer of Kuttanad, known in the sobriquet of Kerala’s Rice Bowl, in Alappuzha district, says. Pillai and his family like the other 18 families who had shifted to a relief camp — nothing but a big house with relatively dry floor — are yet to return to their homes. To their relief, the flood waters have started receding from most areas of Kuttanad. “It would take months for life to return to normal. I had gone to my house the other day in a boat. We had some ducks and a goat. They were not there. Almost all the household utensils are lost,” Narayani Amma, a neighbour of Pillai, laments.

The villages in the Thuruths (islets surrounded by water and paddy fields) were nothing more than a sight of tiled and concrete rooftops and tips of coconut trees and plantains looking up desolately at the merciless skies from the expanse of water. As it happens, it took the authorities a few days to become fully aware of the seriousness of the situation. Around 1.5 lakh people from over 45,000 homes had to be shifted to relief camps — though there was no relief in these camps in the practical sense of the term — in less than a week in Kuttanad alone. All of them had left their homes in the islets surrounded by paddy fields (known as Padasekharams) with nothing but clothes on their backs as there was no time to salvage anything when floodwaters brought down from the mountains in the East by the rivers and streams kept swallowing the farms. “We will now have to start life all over again. Everything is gone. The property documents, identity papers, children’s school books, kitchen and farm equipment — everything is gone. It will take several years” Kunjappan, an inland fisherman from Valiyathuruthu, Kuttanad, tells you.

Flood-hit Kottayam, known as ‘Town of Letters and Latex’ in east-central Kerala, is living proof that Nature does not differentiate between the rich and poor when it strikes. The poorest of the poor living in the shacks made of plastic sheets and logs had left at the first indication of how destructive the rain Gods could be while many most well-to-do families, complacent in their cozy two-storey and three-storey bungalows, could be seen standing in their balconies in Thiruvanchoor and elsewhere looking at the hip-deep floodwaters in their courtyards. “I never thought the monsoon could bring such misery. I am 58 and have never seen anything like this in my entire life which has literally come to a standstill. There is an adage : Water, water everywhere not a drop to drink. We now know what it means. We have been trapped here for four days now. The provisions may run out in a day. That means there will be no food as well,” Jacob Chacko, a resident of Thiruvanchoor, Kottayam from his first-floor balcony, shouted.

Though, this was not the first time that Kerala is witnessing heavy rains it is perhaps for the first time that the State is facing such a situation. “We had heard of the deluge 90 years ago which had redrawn the topography in many areas in Kerala, especially in the upper reaches of Idukki. If the rains had continued with the fury with which it had started this year, it could have caused a deluge worse than the one in the past,” Govindan Nair, a trader in Kochi, says who went through hell for a week when all the roads in his area were waterlogged with no means of access to the main city.

Experts point out that Kerala has experienced an unprecedented calamity this monsoon despite the fact the rainfall is only about  21 per cent in excess. It is true that some districts — Idukki, Kottayam, Ernakulam and Palakkad — have received more than 40 per cent excess rainfall, it should not have caused such a serious situation, they argue. One factor that might have contributed to the situation is perhaps the fact that so much rainfall occurred within a few days but such a phenomenon is not unheard of, they opine.

“There must be other reasons. We have destroyed our habitat. For our thirst  development, we have transformed our territory senselessly. What we just went through calls for a review of our development policy and urbanisation. We must look at whether we should be blocking rivers, whether there should be land-filling of the paddy fields and wetlands. The floods are giving us a message. Our rivers have become narrower, our wetlands have shrunk and we have turned out farmlands and forests into concrete jungles. There should be policy shift,” Ajith Kumar, a Kochi-based hydrologist, shares.

The first major incident of the present monsoon calamity was reported in  mid-June from Pallivasal near Munnar where the hills are dangerously steep. At least five houses were destroyed in a landslide that had started near multi-storey tourist resorts — all constructed illegally and without any regard for the terrain.

The first real tragedy of the monsoon occurred at Kattippara in Karinchola near Thiruvambady in Kozhikode district in the wee hours of June 14, 2018. It came in the form of a landslide along a steep hill that had been transformed into a human habitat. The landslide killed 14 within seconds. It took four days for scores of rescue workers to recover the bodies from under thousand ton rocks, rubble, mud and fallen trees. To add to the woes, at the top of the hill was an illegally constructed tank which could hold 50,000 litres of water.

Experts are of the opinion that the tragedies and flood situation witnessed during this monsoon are connected with human intervention. “That should be the reason why a fairly safe town like Kottayam submerged. The lifeline of almost the entire Kottayam district is River Meenachil. Uncontrolled sand mining and encroachment has changed the topography over the last two or three decades. A dozen or so major landslides that have occurred this monsoon have been near illegal constructions or stone quarries,” an official with the Kerala Mining and Geology Department, says. “Same is the case with other major rivers like Pampa, Bharathappuzha and Periyar,” he adds.

“The present flood situation in the State is inevitably related to the development surge we have witnessed since the start of liberalisation and globalisation back in the 90s,” argues environmentalist Babu John.

“The opening of avenues for big investors and the opportunity it provided led to an increase in corruption at political and bureaucratic levels leading to large-scale plundering of natural wealth, primarily in the construction sector. Construction needs land and materials. We have lost our paddy fields, wetlands, hills and rivers to the real estate and quarrying businesses which are controlled by mafia,” Babu said.

According to hydrologist Sadanandan Nair, a hectare of paddy field can hold two crore liters of water underneath it. “If we had preserved the paddy fields we had forty years ago, we might not have witnessed such a disastrous situation in this monsoon. Between the start of the millennium and now, Kerala’s paddy fields have shrunk by 35 percent or 1,09,000 hectares. On an average, Kerala received 310 cm of rainfall a year which brings more than 7,000 crore cubic meters of water. If we had preserved our paddy fields, they might have absorbed a large part of that volume,” he says.

Nair tells you how the State’s wetlands have shrunk by 49 per cent since 2004 — from 3,28,402 to 1,60,590 hectares. It should be noted that the Kerala Government, which is headed by the CPI(M), a party that has so far stood for the preservation of farms and protection of farm labour and conservation of environment and the eco-system, is now embarking on a programme to dilute a Legislation passed in 2008 to facilitate liberal land-filling of farmlands and wetlands for promoting development initiatives.

“We are inviting trouble. We should put at least a comma for this madness somewhere,” senior journalist, PVS Warrier, says.

Even in Kuttanad, carelessness, callousness and corruption are said to be the root cause of the monsoon-triggered deluge. Kuttanad, a vast paddy field chequered with canals and islands of human habitation, is where the waters showered down by the rains in the eastern Kerala districts of Idukki, Kottayam and Pathanamthitta are deposited and flooding in monsoons is not uncommon.

“We are not unfamiliar with floods but this time went out of hand,” a local politician, Sudevan of Chathankari farm collective, says. The flooding this time was caused by the breaches in two embankments that keep waters from the east out of the paddy fields. The faulty implementation of the MS Swaminathan committee recommendations for the rejuvenation of Kuttanad was the cause of the situation, he feels.

“Bunds were built unscientifically. Proper attention was not given to the flow of water in the construction of embankments. Corruption is also a part of this. As a result of all this and the quite natural annual water inflow, we saw one of the biggest floods of history here and the lake areas of Kottayam district,” he adds.

The State Government has come under severe criticism for its alleged inability to cope with the situation. The authorities failed to arrange proper and timely supply of essentials. Despite the fact that the State Cabinet has three Ministers from Alappuzha district, not even one of them visited the flood-hit areas. Kuttanad people say that a positive change occurred only after the visit by two Ministers from the Centre — Kiren Rijiju (Minister of State for Home) and Alphons  Kannanthanam (Minister of State for Tourism) on July 20, 2018.

“In short, we were left to fend for yourselves till then. Our condition would have been even more pathetic if voluntary workers and several companies and associations had not intervened. We are living in water but have no water to drink. The essential commodities the Government had promised had not come for several days. We were left to prepare our food using rainwater or floodwater. The worst was there is no toilet facility and the Government did not care to provide us with portable bio-toilets despite tall promises,” Kausalya, a mother of two in Valiyathuruthu, says. “Let us hope this does not happen again,” she says.

Writer:  VR Jayaraj

Source: Sunday Pioneer

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